Today we’re beginning a new series called Church: What Am I Missing? Today is an introduction. There’s so much, and I didn’t want to start something I couldn’t finish today. The series has been in the works for months. I did a lot of prep this summer. I went through the whole New Testament multiple times and was floored by a number of things. I know there will be something for all of us in this series.
Think about the people who have left the church over the years and recently. Ask, are they missing something?
I’m reading a book called The Great Dechurching. Two authors surveying church history. They said we’re living amid the fastest and largest transformation in church history. There’s something happening in America that’s unlike anything in history.
The largest point of spiritual growth was during the Civil War. It more than doubled over 25 years. It’s never happened before. 1870-1895. Nothing larger or faster has occurred.
The last 25 years from the mid-90s until now, 40 million adults have stopped going to church. Only the last 25 years can compare to the shift in the Civil War, but it’s going in the opposite direction.
Gallup, who tracks religious membership, said that this is the first time that more adults don’t attend church than those who do in 80 years. More people have left church than everyone who came in during the Great Awakenings and Billy Graham crusades combined.
Are the people who aren’t coming anymore missing something?
And what about the people who do come to church, but they don’t have a tight or thorough theology about the church. They’ve never really engaged it fully, but attend for some reason. Many folks who go to church don’t really understand what is involved in church. The church is partly to blame for that reality.
Some of these folks who don’t know why they go to church are the next in line to possibly leave. You might be thinking about leaving.
I was reminded of so many wonderful things about the church as I reflected on the New Testament.
Here are some questions to ponder:
What is the church?
What is it for?
How do I relate to it?
What role is it supposed to play in my life?
Is it absolutely necessary?
Is my relationship with God separate from my relationship to the church?
What is Christ’s relationship to the church?
What is the church supposed to be in the world?
If you can’t answer those with certainty and clarity, you’re missing something.
Our attendance dropped during covid. Attendance is stabilizing in churches for the most part, but most haven’t reached where they were before.
And we developed certain habits and got a little lazy during covid. Some people are teetering and just haven’t made it back.
There are many who have returned who are very hesitant to commit. That’s a universal thing. Getting volunteers here is much harder than it’s ever been. Even our giving is affected by it. There’s something in the air keeping people from committing.
I’m not going to try to make you feel bad in this series. That’s not how I’m motivated and that’s not how I’m going to motivate you. I can’t stand that way of thinking. You need to know we’re not in competition with any other church and don’t want to be the next big thing. When I’m talking to you about the church, it’s because the Scriptures talk about it. You should do nothing just because I say it. The Scriptures should connect your heart to God's. Guilt is not what motivates me at all and I won’t do that to you. You can assess the truth yourself.
My heart is that I really do love the church and I want you to love it, but not for selfish reasons. You may think I have to love it as a pastor. It’s true that I have to love it, but it’s also not true.
I got an article about this pastor in Arlington who stood up and preached his last sermon and told them all the reasons why. I could relate to everything he said. So, it’s not just the congregation, but the pastors who are wanting out.
I’m not naive. I know the church is imperfect. I’ve heard the church compared to Noah’s Ark, that if it weren’t for the storm outside, the stink inside would be unbearable.
Leading the church well is really hard. It’s hard to be a good church member and hard to be a church leader.
I’ve been doing this for 36 years. I know the church is imperfect. You can’t do it without getting hurt. And you cannot do it without hurting others. Without question, if somebody asked me to speak to new pastors at a seminary, I would tell them, you had better learn to manage the hurt you cause others, and you had better learn to manage the hurt you receive.
You may be nursing a wound that this church has put on you. I’m here to tell you, and I will tell you a million times, that I’m sorry for any hurt this church may have done to you or that I have done to you.
It’s really hard to meet the expectations of people. There’s a lot of reasons we leave churches that aren’t good reasons. I’ve been a part of five churches since I became a believer.
The first church I attended before I came to Jesus had the best preacher for me personally. But I have always been a part of a church since I came to Christ. In 45 years, I don’t know how to be apart from a church. I’ve never been churchless. I wouldn’t be who I am today without those churches.
I went all the way through the New Testament twice this summer, painstakingly, and there is no perfect church.
Jesus says to a church, “I know your works, you patience, your faithful endurance, but I have this against you…”
Jesus could say that to any church. I have this against you. The New Testament was written to the churches. They didn’t have individual Bibles, so you had to be in a church to hear the Scriptures.
Ephesians is a book that is about the church. If you were to take all the books and look for which one is what the church should be, it’s Ephesians.
I could go a number of places that discuss the church. But it’s really hard not to start in Ephesians.
I did two funerals this week. Every single day there’s a marriage in here that might not make it. Yours might be on the rocks. Or you have a habit and show up every week hoping he talks about my habit or my marriage or my finances, because I don’t know how to make ends meet. I’ve got all these problems and don’t want to hear about the church.
I get it. Those things are not left to the side when you consider the church.
“I hope he says something to make me love this man/woman.”
You can’t be part of the church and not be challenged on a regular basis to not be challenged to love the church. Jesus didn’t just love you (John 3:16), but he loves the church too. He gave his life not just for you, but for the whole church. It’s bigger than you. You have to catch that vision. If you abandon the church, who is going to tell you when you’re not loving your husband or wife right?
Jesus is trying to make a connection between these two realities. Your ethical life is attached to your community life within the church. That’s all the way through the New Testament. About 85% of the New Testament involves the church. If you abandon the church, you abandon about 85% of what Jesus commanded you to do.
There’s a relationship between loving Jesus and loving the church.
What does he want to do? Give his life for her. He wants to sanctify her, make her special and uncommon and holy. That’s what Jesus wants from the church. He cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.
In the ancient world, before brides got married, they had a purification bath in order to be made ready for their husbands. It’s a picture of forgiveness and salvation. You’re washed and purified with the word. That’s the salvation picture.
Then he further explains that he’s going to present that church to himself, without blemish or spot or wrinkle, so she can be holy and blameless. Splendor here is the word glorious.
Jesus knows that he’s dealing with something that’s not all the way what it’s supposed to be.
Do you want out on that? Are you saying, “Count me out.” I want to show you how bad of an idea that is.
Maybe you ask, I’m looking at that phrase and maybe I am missing something about the church. Maybe I’m viewing my personal life and all my struggles and habits wrong in light of the church.
Paul prays in Ephesians 1 that we would understand the church. It’s a master class in what the church is about. Many of you are being the church, but you need to see it.
Paul begins the book by praying. Verses 1-23 are two sentences. Paul can’t put a period on this thought.
The Spirit of God has already turned on the lights for you, but you’re still missing some things.
Christ inherited us. There’s no single saint, there’s always saints plural. Saints and grits, you can’t only have one.
Because we are connected to Jesus, we are beneficiaries of all that he has done. Hope, riches, and power are what he wants for us.
God put all things under Christ’s feet and put him as head over all things to the church.
All this cosmic authority that God has he is giving to the church. That means God’s rule in the world is headquartered in the church and meant to be seen. To step out of the church would be to step out of that rule. There’s nowhere to run. You leave the church and you have nowhere else to go. The New Testament gives you nowhere else to go.
Every time we gather together, there’s something rich and there’s something hopeful. All our lives are screwed up, and there are hundreds of things we don’t know how we’re going to solve it.
How do you learn hope? You hang around other people who are hoping.
What resources are you going to use? You’re going to get them from each other.
The power and authority––you have that when we gather. The whole spiritual reality of the believer is enmeshed in the church. There’s no other alternative life for the believer that is even possible.
There’s no other book or admonitions for those who are not in the church. There are dangers and deadliness for not being connected to the church.
Are you willing to go on a journey with me for Lord knows how long?
We won’t leave behind all the issues we’re dealing with every week.
I believe we have a real opportunity and responsibility for ourselves as we think about this unique era in church history. We have a real opportunity and responsibility for the next generation. The stats look bad, but the gates of hell will not prevail against her. The church is not like anything else in the world.
I’m inviting you on a journey and there will be some radical things said that will turn you inside out and challenge our Western mindset.
I’m going to ask you to start all over again, from ground zero, with a fresh commitment to Hillside, to the Church.